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Tottenham Hotspur Season in Review: Mauricio Pochettino

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The second-year Spurs boss firmly established himself as the brightest emerging managerial talent in England last season. Can the success carry over into year three?

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Cartilage Free Captain is once again reviewing each of Spurs' first team players as well as their manager and evaluating their 2015-16 season. The series continues today with manager Mauricio Pochettino.

Mauricio Pochettino

Record: 19-13-6

Goals Scored: 69

Goals Against: 35

Veteran Players Banished to Siberia: 0

What Went Right?

After year one of the Pochettino era, you could be forgiven for wondering if Pochettino bit off more than he could chew at Tottenham. The team drunkenly staggered to a fifth place finish after Pochettino spent the first half of the season figuring out hist best XI and the second half mostly refusing to use it. In truth, something more like an 8th place finish would have been fair, at least according to expected goals. The team simply stole tons of points it had no business winning thanks to the heroics of three players—Hugo Lloris, Christian Eriksen, and Harry Kane. Heading into year two, the general expectation at the club was another fifth-placed finish, but hopefully one the club actually earned.

However, by early November it was apparent that this team's ceiling was much higher than straggling along behind the true elites of the Premier League. Thanks to a combination of Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea all being varying levels of bad and their own surprising quality, Tottenham seemed a favorite to finish not only in the top four, but even in the top three from mid-November through the end of the season. And the team didn't disappoint, finishing third in the table, and clinching direct qualification into the group stage, avoiding the occasionally tricky best-placed playoff round.

There were several factors that led to Tottenham's remarkable season, nearly all of which can be attributed to Pochettino in one way or another.

  • Pochettino finally figured out his midfield—the trio of Eric Dier, Dele Alli, and Mousa Dembele anchored the squad for much of the season. After spending last season inexplicably refusing to play Dembele, Pochettino relied on him heavily this season and the Belgian did not disappoint. The emergence of Dier as a midfielder and of Dele Alli as the best young English player were also welcome surprises. Here Pochettino obviously chose the squad, but he also made the choice to push Dier into midfield and give Alli and Dembele regular playing time ahead of last season's regular midfield duo of Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason.
  • Erik Lamela finally looked a credible Premier League player good enough to belong in the first XI of a Champions League squad. Given that the only reason Lamela was even at the club this season is that Pochettino killed a mooted loan deal to Marseille, the Argentine manager deserves huge credit on this point as well.
  • Harry Kane continued his remarkable rise, winning the golden boot and spear-heading a very good Spurs attack. Though Kane made his debut under Tim Sherwood, his emergence as a genuine Premier League star has come under the tutelage of Pochettino.
  • Summer signing Toby Alderweireld established himself as the Premier League's best defender.
  • Finally, the fullbacks play a major role in Pochettino's system because they provide the width in the attack, but are also essential defensively. Remarkably, Pochettino, the fullback whisperer, has turned Danny Rose and Kyle Walker into genuinely excellent fullbacks who both are amongst the top three in their respective positions in the Premier League.

In addition to all that, the team as a whole was far more confident executing Pochettino's complicated pressing system in year two.

What Went Wrong?

There are two ways to answer that question. First, you could frame it more narrowly by pointing at five particularly bad results that proved to be the difference between a title and third place:

  1. The 1-1 early season draw to Leicester in which Spurs conceded an equalizer within moments of going ahead.
  2. The 1-1 draw against Arsenal in which Spurs dominated the Gunners for an hour but couldn't find more than a lone Harry Kane goal.
  3. The 1-0 loss to Leicester in a match that Spurs won on expected goals.
  4. The 2-2 draw against Arsenal in which Spurs conceded an equalizer to a ten-man Arsenal.
  5. The 5-1 drubbing on the final day of the season against Newcastle.

You could easily throw the 2-2 draw against Stoke in the season's early days on that list as well. Of the six results, four could have been wins, one could have been a draw, and one is just inexplicably bad.

Of course, that brings us to the second way of framing the bad points of Pochettino's second season: Do Spurs struggle to close out opponents? The team showed a remarkable ability to fight back from deficits, but the fact that four of their six worst results of the season came in games that they led at one point suggests that perhaps the team had troubles closing out matches.

One possibility, of course, is that Spurs simply lacked depth and so the drop in quality from a member of the clear best XI to a backup was enormous. That explains the 1-1 draw against Arsenal, for example, and it probably played a big role in the Newcastle defeat.

But there is a second possibility—Pochettino's teams are somewhat notorious at this point for starting fast and fading down the stretch. His second Southampton squad did, essentially, a homeless man's version of this past season's Tottenham performance. The Southampton team never chased the title, but they were hanging around the top four for much of the season before dropping back into eighth by season's end. It may be possible that Pochettino's teams simply cannot maintain the extremely aggressive system he requires over a full season. If that is the case, then Spurs fans will need to hope that Pochettino can follow the lead of his compatriot Diego Simeone and find other ways of setting up his team that may not quite be his trademark tactical approach but that produce results in difficult fixtures.

What's Next?

One of the most interesting things about Pochettino is his relative inexperience. He's been around the game his whole life, of course, but he is still only 44, has only just completed his third full season in England and fifth full season of senior level management. (He also has managed two half seasons at Espanyol in Spain and one half season at Southampton, giving him a total of six and a half years of senior management experience.) He has never participated in the Champions League as either a player or manager. And this season's third place finish is the best finish he has achieved in his entire managerial career. So while he's certainly the best manager Tottenham has had in the Premier League era, he is still young.

He's also now about to be matched up with most of the world's best managers, including Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, and Jurgen Klopp. If you look at the Sky Six, the least accomplished manager of the group is Pochettino—despite his status as being perhaps England's most promising young manager. For that reason, it is very difficult to say what the future holds for Spurs' young boss. He could put together an even more impressive performance as a manager next season and finish fifth or even sixth, such is the quality in the dugouts at the Etihad, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, and Anfield. That said, you'd be foolish to count Pochettino out. His performance at Tottenham so far has been extraordinary and while he has less experience than his peers at the top Premier League clubs, that doesn't necessarily mean he is an inferior manager. Time will tell.

Rating: Five Chirpys